The Old Gruff Man

Dear Friends:

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:56-58).

The man is old and gruff, but not so tough it turns out. He has lived his own way all his life, smarter than most, respectful of few, “having,” a colleague once said, “the conviction of his own intelligence.”

He gets angry at the lunch table conversations when they turn to illness, death, or the challenges of aging parents and ailing spouses. “This is a fine thing,” he says with the sarcasm that has kept him the master of conversations and relationships all these years. “I didn’t have come to lunch with you to be depressed,” he snaps with anger as if silencing the words will change the facts.

There is wealth, a luxury home and car, and few places on earth that he hasn’t been. But his spouse is gone, and most of his friends too, and time is running out for him.

I’ve tried to speak with him over the years about God and grace, the future and hope. He was having none of it. I am a disappointment to him. All these years and I believe and he doesn’t. That makes me weak and gullible in his eyes–a hard worker with a second-class intellect. It must be true because a rational person would never fall for an unseen God who never did a thing for his praying wife when she had breast cancer, as far as he can tell.

He puts no stock in absolutes. Language is subject to interpretation. Honesty depends on one’s self-interest. “People are no good,” is a frequent comment. “My intellectual sunrise,” he often says, “was the day that I realized that language only has the meaning that we give to it. Our success is when we persuade someone else to accept as the truth our characterizations of concepts, people and things.”

Truth for him is a moving target. He has shut down propositions and the beliefs of colleagues over the years with withering invective. When someone stands his ground against him, he shifts his attack, sometimes 180 degrees, to win the point regardless of consistency. Rhetorical skills like that easily find employment in this world, but they prevail at the expense of intimacy and fellowship.

Winning is the thing. He’s been a winner all his life, in the classroom, in the courtroom, on the court, firm meetings, negotiations, and conversations. As I said, time is running out, he’s increasingly alone and there is no light ahead to welcome him because he has never accepted his need for it.

The darkness ahead frightens him, but it won’t bend to his will like so many others and their issues have before. The choice even now is to change direction and make peace with his Maker and his Lord who will take responsibility for his past and future in redeeming love, or to continue on with pride and denial as his companions. One’s soul cramps and stiffens around the insistence of a lifetime that one was right and in the right.

“Sin” basically means living and fulfilling the functions of living without God. Gravity has its pull, however, and we cannot walk in our own strength forever. To die without God leaves one in the fixed position of nowhere. It makes death a permanent and overpowering reality and the best argument and strongest will won’t change that.

God drew a line with the law. On one side is the way things were intended to be–a life of devoted love between God and us and out of that relationship, a life of love for each other. On the other side if the line is life on our own, defining right and wrong for ourselves, competing for what’s out there, because without an assurance of inexhaustible source and supply, what we see is all we are going to get.

It’s not that some of us are immune to crossing over. There’s always the temptation to be our own God and always the insidious discontented reality of our human nature that we would like to have what someone has. We may put God first in our lives, abhor idol worship, not blaspheme or exploit God for our own purposes, keep a holy Sabbath, honor our parents, and not commit murder, adultery, theft, slander or perjury. With focus and practice, we may do a reasonably good job of hitting the marks of conformity. If we are honest, though, we will have to come to terms with the great leveler of the law that is, “You shall not covet. . . .anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Ex 20:17).

“You shall not covet” is the commandment that stopped “Pharisee of Pharisee’s” Paul dead in his self-righteous tracks and let him know that he was a sinner (Rom 7:7-12). Covet means envy and who of us hasn’t envied someone else’s blessing from God and desired it for ourselves to the disdain of what he has given us?

Covetousness is an internal sin committed in our hearts. It is the silent assassin of the life of the Spirit. The rise of envy or jealousy pulls our eyes away from the Lord of Providence to gaze in comparison on another’s gifts and efforts. In that moment, we leave the flow of grace to try to make our way on our own in a land that increasingly turns to desert as we move away from grace.

The blessings of God support us for awhile and even delude us about our capacity and capability as we move out on our own. The prodigal had enough inheritance from his father to keep him and his friends going all the way to the distant country. The day of reckoning comes when we realize that we have nothing to call our own and that it’s empty husks that we are coveting in hunger when we are really starving for the Father (Luke 15:12-17).

On the other hand, the flip side of covetousness is self-righteousness. We may think we need nothing because we are self-sufficient. “For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” (Rev 3:17).

The Father has provided for our wretched lack or proud self-righteousness through our Lord Jesus Christ. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (Eph 1:7). The need of his redemption and grace is the same in either case. Grace devastates even as it uplifts because it says that all we hope and long for depends on God in entirety and not on us.

There is no exception to this. “My God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19). Our needs, as fundamental as heartbeat and breath, occur every moment and Christ’s supply flows every moment to meet that need. One of those needs is fulfillment of the law because we are inadequate to that. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Ps 14:1-2, Rom 3:10).

Paul concluded our passage “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:56-58).  There is such power in those words. That power is ignited by gratitude, our acknowledgement that we have need and God satisfies it. Our victory, our acceptance and the right to live free is a gift, and not something that we earn on merit.

We do have to live in this world and withstand its blandishments and its violence. In the Lord, we can do that, moment by moment, keeping our heart tuned to his guidance, ready and responsive to his use.

We can do that because Jesus Christ has won life and freedom for us and gives it to us because he loves us and no other reason. If we believe that the connection is made that keeps us alive and safe for eternity (John 3:16) We don’t have to beat ourselves or anyone else up or wallow in envy or self-pity which is what happens when we try to make this up for ourselves. Our doing the right thing is every bit as much Christ’s gift as is eternal life (Eph 2:8-10).  It’s all a matter of accepting that we are accepted by our God in love as his child.

Our good behavior follows that belief that we are loved by God without condition. The essence of the commandments is love for God and love for each other (Matt 22:37-40). The Apostle John made this point the centerpiece of his first letter by describing a solid-state circuit of life, faith, love and obedience that is energized by Christ’s very life.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome; for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is Son of God? (1 John 5:1-5).

I am still a work in progress as far as keeping the connection consistently. But in the many years that I’ve known the old, gruff man, love has come to light in me. In fact, I love him and I believe that the God that he denies loves him. As I watch and listen to him alone, afraid and stubborn in the gathering darkness I pray that he will accept that he is loved by God as the reality of his mind and heart and that being loved will become more important to him than having his way.

Knowing and relying on the love that God has for us is the difference between going home and going nowhere. I really want the old man to go home and enjoy it.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).

Under the mercy of Christ,


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